Military veteran Bill Adams says he was in “a very dark place” after a divorce some 30 years ago, including losing touch with his child.
Depression quickly descended, along with homelessness. His years of military training and a corporate career were unable to save him, he told a City Hall audience Thursday.
Addicted and broke, he spent five years living on the streets of Jacksonville and elsewhere until he went to a long-term treatment program at Gainesville’s Veterans Affairs center. Then he learned about the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program at Jacksonville’s Military Affairs and Veterans Department and its employment assistance.
Now, on the eve of Veterans Day, Adams detailed the help he received so he could find a job, ultimately ending up employed as an administrative aide in the mayor’s office.
“I had to let go and die, and I decided to let go and live,” he said. “As I stand here today, I have been employed by the city of Jacksonville for over seven years. And during that time, I have never called in and not reported for work. I have also been clean and sober for over 20 years and now have the privilege of supporting those who are still caught in that homeless cycle.”
Mayor Donna Deegan decided to update people about the reintegration program as the city prepares for its annual Veterans Day Parade down Gator Bowl Boulevard and Bay Street on Saturday. She and Harrison Conyers, the department’s director, reached out to ex-military service members and others to alert them to assistance for homeless veterans.
The mayor said about 80,000 veterans live in the city, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. She related that the state of Florida has the nation’s highest number of homeless veterans, the result of post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment, social isolation and substance abuse.
“Affordable housing is the critical need for most veterans,” Deegan said. “Federal veterans housing assistance helps, but it does not cover the big increases in rents that most people are experiencing right now. Another issue we see is veterans unaware of the resources available, a common theme we talk about.”
The reintegration program has placed 415 veterans in new housing and jobs since 217 — 21 of them since Deegan took office in July, Conyers said. The program also received a three-year, $722,000 grant in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Labor to support it. But since many veterans do not have access to the internet to find the help, Deegan said it’s “right here at City Hall” as she and Conyers updated everyone on what the program does.
The city’s veterans reintegration program offers employment and training services to help veterans reenter the labor force. That includes job training, career counseling, resume preparation and job placement. Support services include purchase of clothing suited for job interviews, as well as work tools and referrals to temporary, transitional and permanent housing. Medical and substance abuse treatment and transportation assistance are also available.
“Our mission is to give veterans back their sense of purpose and to help them get back on their own two feet,” Conyers said. “But we will be with them every step of the way.”
To apply for the program, veterans must be homeless, living in temporary shelter or temporarily at someone else’s home due to economic hardship or imminent loss of housing through eviction or foreclosure.
Homeless veterans can learn more about the reintegration program through the Clara White Mission, CareerSource, Sulzbacher Center, Emergency Services Homeless Coalition and Goodwill of North Florida. The city also works with local services programs like the CareerSource Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program. Or veterans can contact the city’s Military Affairs and Veterans Department at City Hall, 117 West Duval St., on weekdays or by calling (904) 255-5550.